Technology

Groups allege wireless carriers violated privacy laws by sharing location data

Public interest groups are alleging that major phone carriers violated privacy laws by sharing their customers' location data without their permission.

The groups filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against all four national wireless providers - Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile - over practices that had been detailed in media reports over the past year, and urged the agency to crack down.

"The wireless carriers have been engaging in serious violations of their customers' privacy. But the law is clear on this issue: wireless carriers need consent from their customers before they can disclose customer location data to third parties," Eric Null, a senior counsel for New America's Open Technology Institute, said in a statement. "The carriers' practices have been public for over a year now, and the FCC has been asleep at the wheel. The wireless carriers have violated the law, it's time to hold them accountable."

The Open Technology Institute was joined by Free Press and the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law in filing the complaint, which was first reported by Motherboard.

Motherboard and The New York Times have both published stories in the past year detailing how third-party aggregators traffic in customer location data obtained from the wireless industry that can often wind up in the wrong hands.

A story from Motherboard earlier this year showed how easy it was for bounty hunters to obtain someone's precise location using only a phone number.

All four wireless companies named in the complaint either declined to comment or didn't respond when contacted by The Hill.

The entire industry has promised to end their location-sharing partnerships, which the complaint on Friday alleged had blatantly violated the law requiring wireless providers to safeguard location data and obtain permission from customers before sharing it.

Lawmakers have repeatedly pressed the FCC to investigate the industry's practices and crack down on abuses. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, has told Congress that his agency is investigating, but many Democrats have become increasingly frustrated that the probe has dragged on for months without any results.

A spokeswoman for Pai did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

Gaurav Laroia, a policy counsel for Free Press, said in a statement, "Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called upon the FCC to put a stop to this behavior, and wireless users can't afford to wait for that relief any longer."

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